Adinkra symbols are representations of popular maxims, proverbs, recorded historical events, as well as particular attitudes or behaviors related to portrayed figures or concepts related to abstract shapes. Being among the traditional symbols produced in the African region, these symbols often have different meanings attached to them.
These symbols possess an embellished function in addition to representing objects which summarize evocative messages which communicate traditional wisdom or different aspects of life and environmental facts.
History and origin of Adinkra symbols
The history of Adinkra symbols is quite exciting. The Akan people who were inhabitants of what is now known as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire were able to develop noteworthy weaving skills by the 16th century.
Nsoko, which is known as present day Begho was a significant weaving center of that time. Adinkra symbols are in fact believed to have their origin from Gyaman, which was a kingdom in present day Côte d’Ivoire.
Adinkra Cloth in 1817
Adinkra was considered to be the elite right of only royal people and spiritual leaders. Moreover, Adinkra was only supposed to be used for very important ceremonies, such as funerals. The word Adinkra stands for goodbye. Thus, the tradition goes that Asante used to wear clothes which were embellished with Adinkra symbols on funerals of close friends and family. This used to indicate their sorrow and their respect for the deceased.
As per a legend in Ghana, the beginning of the 19th century saw a military conflict when Gyamaan king named Nana kofi Adinkra tried to copy the ‘Golden Stool,’ which was the symbol of the neighboring Asante nation.
This symbol represented power as well as tribal unity. The Gyamaan king was murdered and his territory was also seized by the Asante kingdom. Gyamaan king’s Adinkra robe was also taken away by the Asante king, Nana Osei Bonsu, in the form of war’s trophy.
The Asante nation also received the knowledge regarding Adinkra Aduru, which was a special ink used for the printing process In addition, they also got to known about the process involving the stamping of designs onto the cotton cloth.
The Making of Adinkra Cloth: Adinkra Symbols of Ghana
The Asante people then developed the Adinkra symbols by integrating their own folk tales, philosophies, and culture. Moreover, Adinkra symbols were used on metals and pottery and in present times are included in the contemporary commercial designs, sculptures, and architecture.
[The 24-foot-tall “Adinkra Tower” by sculptor Thomas Sleet was dedicated on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. ] Image source: http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/sculpture-designed-give-hope-courage-and-more-north-city-bus-riders-and-passers#stream/0
Today, many ethnic groups in Ghana wear Adinkra cloth for special gatherings and occasions. The cloth has surely moved from Asante people to other groups in the nation.
Asantehene of Ghana
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Symbolism and Significance of Adinkra
Adinkra symbols have never failed to attract people from different races and ethnic groups. The reason is that they are exquisite, perfect representation of African culture, and elaborate. These symbols articulate different themes which are related to Asante philosophy, history, and beliefs.
Kyle Falvey ( Tulane University) and Laurie Cale (DePauw University) dawning a traditional adinkra cloth in the Ghanaian way. Image source: http://study-abroad-blog-legon-as.ciee.org/2013/09/index.html
Since proverbs always held a special importance in the Asante culture, these symbols posses an integral proverbial significance. See adinkra symbols and meaning
There are approximately 400 known Adinkra symbols known in Ghana. Usually, Adinkra symbols are representations of different aspects of life such as plants, animals, buildings, hairstyles, and natural shapes. Most of these images have a common basic form to share, and a trivial change in their representation can infact change the whole meaning.
Africa mainly embeds philosophical material in folk tales, myths, proverbs, and rituals and beliefs Adinkra symbols are manifestations of these representations.
With new influences impacting the Ghana culture, Adinkra symbols have also witnessed changes as some symbols also represent new technological advancements.
These beautiful Adinkra symbols can be found adorning the Adinkra cloth which is an ideal example of traditional clothes of Africa. Adinkra cloth was earlier lonely reserved for the elite class such as royalty who used to wear it for funerals. However, with advancement of time, Adinkra cloth came to be used for wearing on special occasions such as marriages, naming ceremonies, or festivals.
Types of Adinkra
For a cloth to be named Adinkra, it should have stamped designs. For a cloth to serve as a funeral dress, it should be dyed into red (kobene), russet brown (kuntunkuni), and dark blue-black color (brisi).
Ashanti funeral in Kumasi
There are other forms as well which cannot be however termed as proper mourning cloth. Since they have a bright look or background, they can be easily classified as Kwasiada Adinkra or Sunday Adinkra. These clothes are fancy clothes which are appropriate for wearing on festive occasions.
Uses of Adinkra symbols
These Adinkra symbols are used on fabrics, advertising, logos, and pottery items. Architectural buildings, sculptures, and even Akan gold weights used for traditional rituals also make use of these Adinkra symbols.
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Adinkra Ear Rings:
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These symbols were also utilized for embellishing accessories other than cloth as well. Sculptors, architects, and even carpenters also make use of these symbols for decorating their products.
The symbols have become so popular that even corporate institutions also make use of these symbols as their logos.
Adinkra printing is done through two unique ways; one is block-stamp method while the other is screen printing. The block stamp method makes use of metal or wooden stamps.
Adinkra Design Printing:
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In order to prepare the adinkra clothes, calabash gourds are mounted or carved on sticks.
The dye used for printing is prepared by boiling the Kuntunki tree bark with the help of an iron slag in order to form a paste which is called adrinka aduru.
The bark as well as the roots is soaked for many days in order to soften them. They are further pounded to boost the softening process. The Badie bark is then boiled with the help of iron scraps. When the deep brown color is derived from the pulp, it is then sieved and engraved onto the piece of pot.
Two ladeis pounding bark. Image source: https://www.tienchiu.com/wp-content/gallery/ghana-adinkra/2_pounding_bark.jpg
Adinkra Ink. Image source: https://www.tienchiu.com/wp-content/gallery/ghana-adinkra/2_pounding_bark.jpg
The symbol block is dipped into the paste ink and then stamped on the cloth in linear designs. The cloth makers repeat the process which has not changed much over the time.
Red or black color is used for dying the cloth. A chemical named Sudi instead of the Kuntunkuni root is used in the case of red colored Adinkra cloth.
The different stamps which are carved from the calabash are then tinted with dye and then pressed in sequence on the cotton cloth while being pegged on the ground. Nowadays, raised platforms along with sack covering which act as the printing table.
With recent times, imported cloth has been brought into use as the background of the cloth.
Moreover, different fabrics having specific significance are also used on particular fabrics. The designing on the fabric is selected as per the message which the weaver wants to communicate. Moreover, the cloth quality also portrays the social status of the individuals wearing it.
Ex President of Ghana : John Kuffuor
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The Adinkra cloth is not to be washed as it can fade easily because of the natural ink which is used without any chemical addictives.
Nowadays, other material cloths are also stamped with Adinkra symbols using the batik method. Ntonso town in the Ashanti Region is known for the Adinkra cloth and is acknowledged as ‘Home of Adinkra.’
Aesthetic Value of Adinkra Symbols
The Adinkra symbols exemplify non-verbal communicative as well as aesthetic values, including the different aspects of life of individuals who designed these. The vivid colors such as red, white, blue, yellow, etc are used for projecting the celebratory nature of the day.
The dark and dull colors such as black, brick red, brown, etc are used for making ‘Birisi,’ ‘Kuntunkuni,’ and ‘kobene’ clothes. Black color induces aesthetic feeling of sadness as well as hopelessness.
The red color is used for denoting blood as well as death. This is the reason why Kobene is worn by the close family members to portray their grief while others wore different colored clothes. Kobene is also worn during the Asanthene’s funeral or during national calamities.
Adinkra pattern is used for dyeing exquisite designs on the Adinkra cloth. The patterns make use of different phrases or proverbs for displaying various thoughts on the cloth. These patterns are used not only on clothes but also on different sculptures and pottery as well.
Adinkra is infact the only popular printing tradition of the pre-Colonial basis. It is among the esteemed royal crafts which are produced in the villages surrounding Kumasi, the Asante capital. The cloth was introduced in the year 1818 after the capture of a rival king known by the name of Adinkra.
The cloth was worn by these to express their grief during sad occasions.
Modern users of Adinkra cloth
Adinkra cloth is popularly used in the present times as well with many celebrities also making use of these symbols. Here are some ways in which Adinkra symbols are brought into use nowadays.
African Burial Sites
During a tour to the African Burial Ground National Monument, one can witness some symbols depicting a writing style which represents diverse African cultures as well as inhabitants.
As one approaches the monument, one can see seven mounds which are made from grass. This is the place where granite structure stands. The granite headstone portrays rendering of a ship which carried Africans into North America.
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Image source: http://www.aarrisatepa.com/portfolio/abg/
The symbol Nyame Biribi Wo Soro is carved on the stem of the ship which depicts dependence on God for motivation. Nsibidi and Sankofa symbols are depicted on each side of the ship representing unity and ability to take lessons from the past. These symbols in particular remind about the journey of Africans to North America.
The memorial is full of Adinkra symbols which are reflection of many stories of lives which were affected by the Middle Passage.
Adinkra symbols make exquisite tattoo which are used even today for beautification and style. These tattoos are even popular among celebrities.
The reason is that these symbols have a story to tell and each symbol conveys meaning through famous proverbs and phrases. Thus, many individuals go for getting these tattoos on their body as a symbol of true reflection of different phases of life.
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Celebrities wearing Adinkra Symbols
Adinkra symbols are beautiful personification of life meanings. With the advent of time, these Adinkra symbols have gained much popularity. In the past, these symbols were only used for clothes, sculptures, pottery, etc, and were limited to only a particular sect of society. However, nowadays, everyone is taking advantage of these mesmerizing symbols. Even the celebrities have not remained untouched by the charm of these Adinkra symbols.
Bob Marley, who was a renowned songwriter-singer of international fame was seen wearing a shirt decorated with Adinkra symbol ‘Gye Nyame’ which says Except God, I fear none.
Image source: https://es.pinterest.com/pin/557320522617451117/
Another famous celebrity who has been a fan of Adinkra symbols is NAS rapper who is a New York based rapper. His love for Adinkra symbols is great and he boldly wears this passion everywhere.
Image source: https://www.fashionghana.com
American rapper Bow wow has also been seen wearing t-shirts designed with Ghanian Adinkra symbols. His one famous picture portrays him wearing a t-shirt with Adinkra symbol ‘Gye Nyame.’ This symbol stands for ‘Except God’ and is widely used Akan symbol.
Fashion industry has wisely and widely made use of these Adinkra symbols for marketing their products well. Adinkra symbols are no doubt a traditional wonder which is unmatchable.